When to begin a strength training programme, in terms of chronological age, is always a much asked question. Fear of long term damage, stunting growth or damaging bones that are not fully matured are all common concerns and coaches will often delay strength programmes until late teen years. Usually however, this is due to a misconception of what we term as strength training and a lack of understanding of the modalities strength and conditioning coaches use to support athlete development.
Generally when we think of strength training we imagine weights, drawing up connotations of heavy barbells being repeatedly lifted over head, or vistas of bulky guys sat hitting rep after rep of a bicep curl with a solid iron dumbbell spring to mind. And if this were the case then for sure, lets not encourage kids to do this (in fact lets not encourage most adults to do this either!!!!!) But strength training doesn't all have to be about weights - not if we strip the term strength right down its most fundamental level.
Strength can be described as “the ability to produce force against resistance” and within this term we only have to look at new born babies to see that at the beginning of life, so does the strength training programme begin!! Supine babies will kick their legs against the sides of the cot in order to begin developing the strength they will need one day to walk. Rotational strength is developed as the bambino exerts force through its torso in order to attempt to roll onto its front - and so on through lifting its body to crawl and the eventual bi-pedal stance as its first step draws ever nearer!
In reality strength work is all about increasing the body’s ability to exert or withstand force and whilst it would be wholly unnecessary for a 12 year old swimmer to be hitting max effort bench press reps there are many more subtle methods of training that will over time prepare the swimmer fully for when the resistance does need increasing. Not only that but if conducted properly in a controlled environment, these training methods are fun and far safer than some childhood sports - particularly contact sports, that all include various lunging, jumping and twisting patterns, only with the added fear that mid twist you might get blind-sided by an opposing player and end up in a pained heap on the floor! Not fun (for most anyway!!!!!!!!!)
The key points here, whether talking about a young swimmer or a baby, are that the strength work is appropriate - and as long as it is appropriate, fit for purpose and safe then the only truly limiting factor will be an athletes mental readiness! Babies will crawl when they are ready! We need to get better at discerning when our athletes are ready to begin a supplementary programme as opposed to asking are they the right age…
Can they listen to instruction, follow safety guidelines and appreciate the level and standard of work required from them to embark on this new regime? Can they be trusted to respect equipment, other trainees and staff? Can they appreciate the risks associated with improper form? And ultimately do they understand the reasons why they are doing it and the benefit that will ensue?
There is certainly no rush to get kids into strength programmes as for a large portion growth and varied sport will play the biggest role in strength and conditioning. However, once a swimmer, or track athlete or football player, begins to show enthusiasm to get more involved in the sport, supplementary strength work can be a great way to develop a rounded athlete and allot training time to beneficial activities that will keep training interesting and fun…